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Testimony 2023 Oversight Hearing on Office of the Attorney General

Testimony to DC Council Committee of the Judiciary. Ward 3 Housing Justice lauds OAG Land Use community involvement, Urges greater weight for OAG comment in zoning cases.

Jayme Epstein, February 22, 2023


My name is Jayme Epstein. I am a resident of Ward 3 and a member of Ward 3 Housing Justice, a grassroots group that advocates for affordable housing, and especially deeply affordable housing, in Ward 3. I am here today to express Ward 3 Housing Justice’s gratitude for the education and advocacy the Land Use Section of the Office of Attorney General is doing to increase the building of affordable housing in Ward 3 and throughout the city.


Ward 3 Housing Justice is a member of Empower DC’s Equitable Development Working Group, which meets monthly to discuss issues regarding racial equity and development in the District. Attorneys from the Land Use Section have been invaluable members of the working group, providing education about zoning and land use laws and policies and advocating for changes that advance the group’s goals. Specifically, Land Use Section attorneys have:


  • Intervened in Planned Unit Development cases to advocate for the inclusion of more affordable units;

  • Advocated for deeper affordability levels for the Inclusionary Zoning program, and proposed a corresponding text amendment;

  • Opposed the exemption of downtown zones from inclusionary zoning requirements; and

  • Advocated for the use of creative incentives for developers to increase the number of affordable units in their projects (for example, exempting affordable units from parking requirements).


The value of the knowledge the OAG attorneys bring to these and other meetings with grassroots groups cannot be overstated. In addition to the Empower working group, they have offered to ANCs and other community groups to make presentations about their work and invited residents to make use of their services. And the learning goes both ways: the attorneys are attuned to the needs of the community and use these opportunities to learn from the community groups where their intervention and support is most needed.


In short, the involvement of the Land Use Section with community groups, including Ward 3 Housing Justice, has resulted in a giant step forward in helping residents understand and engage with land use and zoning decisions. This was recently exemplified by their advocacy for improvements in the draft racial equity tool of the Zoning Commission. Not only did attorneys from the Land Use Section submit recommendations for improving the tool, they met with Ward 3 Housing Justice, Empower DC and others to explain the intersections of the Comprehensive Plan and the Zoning Commission tool and encouraged DC residents to attend the Zoning Commission roundtable and submit comments.


There has been an historic imbalance on land use issues because regulatory proceedings are dominated by corporate lawyers. An ordinary citizen doesn't have access to zoning or land use policy expertise. As a result, vulnerable citizens and not well resourced neighborhoods have been disadvantaged in these matters. The recent emphasis by the former and current Attorneys General to fill this knowledge gap has resulted in meaningful wins for these communities and the cause of justice. This is an impressive success story for the attorneys in the Land Use Section, and it suggests that if the section were enlarged, it would help to add the persuasive voice of the OAG to more cases where equity and fairness are key issues.


Another important step in ensuring that the work of this office receives the consideration that it is due would be to require that its analyses in zoning cases be granted great weight that is at least as significant as that granted to the Office of Planning or to ANCs. As we recently witnessed at the December 5, 2022 hearing of the Zoning Commission on Case 96-13A, a modification of the PUD at 5333 Wisconsin Avenue, the OAG Land Use Office delivered testimony (Exhibit 31) that reflected a reasonable interpretation of the Comp Plan and other relevant documents that would have required the applicant to improve their proffer for affordable housing in this redevelopment, where they were receiving a hefty height windfall. These well-reasoned arguments were dismissed out of hand by the Commissioners and not granted serious weight. In cases where the OAG arguments would result in greater equity, we believe that they should be given priority consideration and greatest weight.


I’d also like to take this opportunity to commend the Office of the Attorney General generally for the work it has done to hold landlords accountable and to advocate on behalf of the residents of public housing.


In closing, we urge the new Attorney General to maintain or increase the level of urgent attention to housing justice in the city, and in particular to support the ongoing work of the Land Use Section to support the equitable development of affordable housing throughout the city.


Thank you for the opportunity to testify.


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